The Big Sidekick

May 16, 2010

No longer the dominant force he once was, Shaquille O'Neal is trying to cement his legacy by leading yet another star to his first title

Perhaps the best way to describe the Cavaliers' biggest acquisition last summer is to say it might as well have come encased with a sign that read, IN CASE OF DWIGHT HOWARD, BREAK GLASS. And there behind the pane was an enormous, smirking bald man.

Sure, the Cavs claim they traded for Shaquille O'Neal to help throughout the season—"Really, it wasn't just for Dwight," coach Mike Brown says with admirable conviction—but everyone knows this isn't true. After the Magic center spent last spring slam-dancing through LeBron James & Co. during a 4--2 upset in the Eastern Conference finals, Cleveland had to obtain a post defender of significant force. In O'Neal the Cavs found the closest thing to a human levee. And so for the first time in his 18-year NBA career Shaq was cast as a pure role player, brought in to, in his words, "win a ring for the King" while serving as Kryptonite for the 6' 11", 240-pound Howard, the league's new Man of Steel. To say Shaq has taken this new role seriously would be an understatement.

You stare at the plastic bottle. That couldn't be ... could it? "Yup, V8," O'Neal says, his voice a low rumble.

Really? V8? This is not the drink of the Baddest Man on the Planet, an icon with championships to win and nightclubs to plunder and a world to cradle in his wrinkled brown palms. Yet here he is, a man who used to dine on 48-ounce steaks and wash them down with 24-ounce steaks, cradling this tiny vessel of vegetable pulp. O'Neal is splayed on a leather couch in the team's practice facility on an off day during Cleveland's second-round series against the Celtics (which was 2--2 after Boston's 97--87 win on Sunday). And what is this? Now Shaq is talking about how he orders in organic meals, how he's cut out soda and white bread and most red meat, how while rehabbing a thumb injury he spent hours on the treadmill and in the pool (activities he heretofore savored about as much as a pressure free throw), how he stays home most nights to rest, how he's lost 20 pounds and feels really good about it. And damn if he doesn't look relatively slim, his stomach practically a plane beneath his T-shirt, which he pairs most days with baggy sweatpants and perhaps the largest pair of shower sandals ever manufactured. "I'm telling you," says Cleveland G.M. Danny Ferry, "he has worked his butt off."

Worked his butt off? My goodness, who is this? What happened to the celebrity Shaq, who in his L.A. days was making movies and rap albums while living it up in a preposterous mansion with giant Superman logos on the front doors? Then there was Miami, glorious Miami, with its beaches and senoritas and hazy, gauzy nights. "I never got any rest in Miami," O'Neal says nostalgically. "I still don't know how we won that championship [in 2006]. F------ partied every night in Miami."

But now? Now the 38-year-old O'Neal lives in Richfield, Ohio, a town of 3,117 halfway between Cleveland and Akron in which the most common occupation is construction and the best restaurant is known for its early-bird dinners. Once the city was home to the Richfield Coliseum, where the Cavs and Zeppelin played, but that arena was demolished in 1999. Hell, Shaq can't even ride his tricked-out three-wheel motorcycle around Richfield, as he did last season while playing for the Suns, when he would startle many a bleary-eyed suburbanite by roaring off the line at Scottsdale, Ariz., stop signs. "Danny [Ferry] told me that if I ride and crash it, my contract is void," O'Neal says, "so I sold it."

While it is nearly impossible for a 7'1", 350-pound man to disappear, that's essentially what O'Neal has tried to do for the last nine months in Cleveland, where he lobbied Phoenix to trade him last spring. Upon arriving in the fall he held a raucous welcome party at the Barley House, an Irish bar in downtown Cleveland—"no bodyguards, no entourage, just to show the people in the city I'm a nice guy," he says—and then promptly became, well, boring. For years Shaq doled out proclamations meant to provoke, disrupt and self-promote. The Sacramento Queens. Chris Bosh is the RuPaul of big men. Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes. But this season he has exited through side doors, toned down his tweets and stayed at all times in the shadow of James. Last month O'Neal even declined an interview with Esquire. "I'm finally one of the others," he explains. "For 16 years it was about me. Now it's all about him."

There is one problem, though. After all these years of effortless dominance, no quantity of veggie smoothies or ab crunches or afternoon naps with chamomile oxidizers can change the fact that Shaq is no longer the force he once was. And though Cleveland doesn't need the old Shaq, it does need a reasonable facsimile. The Cavs may depend on James as much as any team has ever depended upon its star, but it is upon O'Neal's balky knees and tired shoulders that their title prospects—already in peril against a surprisingly resilient Celtics team—may well hinge. The question then is, Does he still have it?

The man in the upper deck at Quicken Loans Arena is livid. He cannot understand Mike Brown's decision in this, the first game of the Celtics series. "Why the hell is Shaq in?" the man is shouting, gesturing wildly with both hands, as if trying to grab the Cleveland coach from afar and shake some sense into him. "He is killing us."

From his office the Western Conference G.M. watches on TV and agrees. "They're starting him," he says. "But you know Mike can't wait to get Andy [Varejao] in the game."

The long-time scout also observes O'Neal and sees a player who can be effective, if only in spurts. "I don't think he can ever beat you by himself again," says the scout. "He will beat up your man, though. He's definitely hacking the s--- out of people."

Tom Withers, who has covered the Cavaliers all season for the Associated Press, sums it up best, however. "Some days Shaq looks 28," he says, "and others he looks 48."

And sometimes he can look both in the span of an hour. Take that Game 1 against the Celtics. In the first half alone O'Neal flubbed three easy post moves, unfurled a running hook so devoid of touch it more closely resembled a bullet on third-and-short, watched motionless while Boston forward Paul Pierce grabbed an offensive rebound and casually laid it back in a foot away from him, and, worst of all, caught an entry pass and prepared to jam the ball home only to smear it against the rim. (Shaq's honor was partially salvaged when a foul was called on the play.) He was, to both the trained and untrained eye, a disaster, like watching a woolly mammoth try to play center in the NBA.

Then, in the second half, O'Neal came to life. Trailing on the break, he caught a pass from James in the middle of the lane and soared—O.K., careered—in for a one-handed jam. Then he dropped in an up-and-under spinning baseline move on Kendrick Perkins that was startling in its grace. And, finally and most valuably, he stepped into the lane during the closing minutes as Celtics guard Rajon Rondo drove to the basket, laying upon the young man what can only be described as a sideways body slam. Dazed, Rondo missed his first free throw and, astute observes will note, has yet to come down the lane again with such gusto against Shaq.

Thus, how and when to deploy Shaq presents a vexing challenge for Brown. Offensively, O'Neal changes Cleveland's style of play, clogging James's driving lanes. He cannot run a pick-and-pop because he lacks a jumper and his slow feet don't make him any more dangerous on pick-and-rolls. The result: The team must feed him in the post, whereupon he starts backing down so methodically that it seems he should beep like a truck in reverse. What's more, one of his greatest skills, his ability to find the open man from the block, is now mitigated because teams no longer feel compelled to double-team him.

At the other end of the floor O'Neal's presence is just as restrictive. Opponents see Shaq and immediately morph into the Jazz circa 1995, running an endless succession of pick-and-rolls. Since O'Neal isn't quick enough to show, Cavs assistant coach and defensive guru Michael Malone asks him to at least provide what he calls a "late contest," running at the shooter after the fact.

The numbers don't help. Not just the familiar measurements—at week's end Shaq was scoring 10.6 points per game on only 49.3% shooting in the playoffs—but the advanced ones. For as long as he's been in the league, it was assumed O'Neal helped his team just by being on the floor. He created mismatches, got opponents in foul trouble, facilitated open shots. He mattered. This season, however, the Cavs were statistically better off without Shaq on offense (114.7 points per 100 possessions with O'Neal versus 108.7 without him) and defense (105.9 allowed with him, 105.6 without).

In fact, in the series against the Bulls (a 4--1 first-round win) and the Celtics, it was hard not to wonder if the Cavaliers wouldn't be better off keeping O'Neal encased behind that metaphorical glass until—or if—they face Howard. (At week's end the Magic had a 3--0 lead on the Hawks in the other Eastern semi.) But, as Malone points out, this might defeat the purpose: "Then he'd be coming into a potential Orlando series, and he'd still be trying to find his rhythm."

In the past O'Neal's rejoinder to any of the above critiques might have been: I just need more touches. This season, however, he has played the role of good solider, even though, as he says, "I could still average 20 if I needed to." Ferry says that beyond accepting his role, O'Neal has gone so far as to help define it. "He came in and, without us having to say anything, said, This is LeBron's team. I know I'm not going to get 30 shots a game anymore; I know where I am in my career, but I also understand how to win, and I can help with that." Malone was similarly impressed. "My feeling is that until you coach a player, you can't form an opinion," he says. "And this is no b.s. when I say that Shaq's been great. I don't know if it's because he's older or is on a one-year contract, but frankly I don't care."

Talk to Shaq about his new approach, and he credits a number of factors—including his respect for James—but one theme runs through his answers: legacy.

As a personality, his is certainly secure. It can be easy to forget now, but O'Neal was the NBA for a long stretch during the post-Jordan and pre-Bryant years. And while Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were scowling, Shaq was always smiling. Sure, his movies may have been goofy and his rap albums indulgent, but he almost always exuded joy. Here was an enormous black man who effortlessly appealed to middle America. He instigated break-dancing contests (notoriously with James and Howard at the 2007 All-Star weekend—Google it, you won't be sorry), then stole the 2009 All-Star weekend by performing with the dance troupe Jabberwockeez during player introductions. And as serious as he seems with the Cavs, he actually remains just as silly. "You would never believe that he is 38, the way he is off the court," says James. "He's always laughing and joking and doing things that not even a 28-year-old—not even an 18-year-old—would do, because [Shaq] loves life."

At heart he has always been an entertainer, going back to childhood, when he'd perform skits for his younger siblings every Sunday morning while his parents slept in. "He has a kindness and sensitivity to other people that came from his grandmother," says his mother, Lucille. For years Shaq encouraged Lucille to write a memoir, and when Walk Like You Have Somewhere to Go was published this spring, he steadily supported her. "He's been so cool," says Curt Harding of Thomas Nelson Press, the book's publisher. "He has shown up at every book signing, and naturally everyone wants to interview him. So he just looks at her and says, 'Is that O.K., Mom?'"

No, nobody doubts how much the league will miss Shaq when he leaves it. But as beloved as he is as a person, he is a polarizing figure as a player. If you're ever in need of a good bar conversation, try posing this: If O'Neal had fulfilled his potential, how good could he have been? Lakers coach Phil Jackson once said of Shaq, "He's the one guy that didn't really like to work." But what if he had? What if he'd devoted himself to the game the way Bryant has, if he'd become a 70% foul shooter, if he'd developed even one face-up move in the post? Seriously, how many rings would he have won? Eight? Ten? Could he have averaged 40 and 20?

For a glimpse of what might have been, go to YouTube and search for his highlights at Cole High in San Antonio. There you will see a young, slim O'Neal running the floor with effortless grace, handling the ball on the fast break (!) and then swishing a soft jumper (!!). To watch the clip is to envision what might have been, a supersized hybrid of Hakeem Olajuwon and Julius Peppers. But of course O'Neal never became that player—and who's to say he would have been more effective if he had, for his sheer bulk was often his greatest asset. But the questions will forever follow him.

For years O'Neal scoffed at his critics or hid behind humor and outsized boasts. In 2002, during his heyday, this is how he rationalized his free-throw-shooting ineptitude to Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker: "Being the best is too easy for me. If I played the game I play and shot 88 percent from the line, it would take away from my mental focus, because I would know how good I was and I wouldn't work so hard." On other occasions, he's blamed failings upon—pick one—the refs, a leaguewide conspiracy, flopping big men, cowardly coaches who choose to foul him and, of course, Bryant. Which is to say, anyone but Shaquille O'Neal. This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, this is a man who sports a tattoo on his right arm that reads AGAINST THE LAW, because, as O'Neal told Mead, "It's against the law to be this talented, this beautiful, this smart, this sexy. I don't mean penal-code law. I mean laws of nature."

These days, however, O'Neal has gained some perspective and, dare we say it, even a touch of humility. Sitting on the couch at the practice facility, his voice low, he is candid about his weight gain: "I came in skinny, and [they said] you gotta lift weights, you gotta lift weights. So I lifted a whole bunch of weights, and I got big. Then I started winning, and then I started getting cute. So of course when you win and you're already muscular, you start eating the steaks and the burgers. I was just doing movies and doing albums. I was just young and so athletic and so good that I didn't really have to do much."

What's remarkable, of course, is how much he accomplished by not doing much. At this point O'Neal's career numbers are staggering: more than 28,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and $286 million in salary. And while some agree with Celtics coach Doc Rivers when he says, "No matter what he does the rest of his life on the basketball floor, his legacy is already cemented," O'Neal understands that this is not quite true. Consider: Were the Cavs to win a ring this season, not only would it be O'Neal's fifth, but he could also lay claim to being the man who brought a championship to the three greatest players of this generation: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Play another year or two, and he might also pass his hero, Wilt Chamberlain, whom he trails by 3,164 points for fourth place on the career scoring list. "If I can catch him, that'd be big," O'Neal says.

In a funny way, the result of all this is that this postseason is an audition of sorts for O'Neal. His contract with Cleveland is up after the season, and Ferry will only say, "We really enjoyed having Shaq here, but where we are right now is, Let's focus on this year."

There aren't many other options. Talk to executives around the league, and they mention the Mavericks' Mark Cuban as the type of owner who might take a chance on signing Shaq, but not many others. Says a Western executive, who, like many around the league, questions whether O'Neal would remain quite so deferential on a team without a star the caliber of James, "It has to be someone who is trying to get over the top but can handle his persona." Another G.M. pegs Shaq's value at "maybe two or three million," a far cry from the $20 million he's making this year. "The risk is that he's hard to control in the locker room, and his game is pretty much gone from what I've seen. But he can still be effective in the right situations."

That is all to come though. For now, O'Neal and the Cavs must worry about the Celtics before they can concern themselves with Howard or ring fittings or anything as grand as a legacy. So there was Shaq on Sunday in Game 4, looking both 48 (early, when he had his shot blocked and was called for three seconds) and 28 (midway, power dunk inside) and nonexistent. (Brown sat him for the whole fourth quarter.) It was a strange sight, this large, proud man squeezed onto the bench for all that time, elbows jammed in his lap as if stuck in the middle seat on a commuter flight, occasionally clapping, occasionally leaning forward anxiously to get a better view of the action. He no longer looked like a superhero, or a celebrity, or an invincible force. Rather, he looked like any other normal 38-year-old holding on, hoping the game had not passed him by.

Now on SI.com

Stay on top of all the action with Fast Break after each game at SI.com/nba

Shaq used to wash down 48-ounce steaks with 24-ounce steaks. Now he eats organic meals.

Shaq has played the role of good soldier, even though, he says, "I could still average 20 if I needed to."

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONINSIDE JOB Brought in to shut down Orlando's big man, O'Neal first needs to dispose of Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATODIESEL ENGINE An older but slimmer O'Neal causes headaches at both ends of the court—for both teams. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERI GOT YOUR BACK O'Neal campaigned for a trade to Cleveland, where he said he could "win a ring for the King." PHOTOBOB ROSATO (WITH WADE)TITLE BOUTS After taking three titles with Bryant (far right), O'Neal partied his way to a championship with Wade in 2006. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)